Postcard from the End of the Earth

Palau is one of those “Oh yeah” places.

Palau? “Oh yeah, that’s where they had the Survivor thing several years ago.” “Oh yeah, that’s where they shipped those terrorists from Gitmo.” Or if you’re of another generation, “Oh yeah, that’s where U.S. intelligence messed up in WWII and a three day mop-up turned into a three month hand to hand battle and 12,000 men died.”

Palau lies just above the equator underneath the Philippines in what is known as Micronesia. To get to Palau from Chicago requires five flights. To Houston, Honolulu, Guam, Yap and finally Korer, Palau. 29 hours. Korer is not quite the end of the earth, but the boat to the end of the earth leaves from there. Once every two months, a supply boat from Korer goes to the tiniest of the 18 or so Palaun states, Sonsorol Island, 400 miles south and home to only a few dozen people.

10,000 years ago, Palau was a significant land mass, but since that time the oceans have risen, and now just the tops of the mountains stick out of the water, creating a nation composed of hundreds of little islets. Because the dense (I mean dense, and I have been in the tropics in a dozen countries. I know dense.) foliage comes right down to the water line, and because the ocean has eaten away the limestone around the base of each island, they look like they are floating, more or less like scoops of green ice cream on a dark blue plate.

In the old pictures in the national museum, Palauns are very dark with dense curly hair, much like Melanesians. The ones you see on the street are much lighter colored and their hair is much straighter. It’s not clear if that’s because the photos are old and brownish, or the result of the islands being passed around between colonial powers like a doobie in a dorm room. First it was the Spanish, who then sold the islands to the Germans, who mined phosphate there. It passed to the Japanese after WWI, who used it as a supply depot in WWII, and finally to the Americans. The small museum is organized into five rooms, one for Palau and one for each colonial power.

One curiosity factoid. The famous Yap stone money was quarried on Palau, and hauled back to Yap in outrigger canoes across 300 miles of open ocean. The value of the currency isn’t related to size but rather to how many men died trying to get it back to Yap. Supposedly, the highest denomination could fit in the palm of your hand. You learn a lot about Yap on Palau, and you learn a lot about the Philippines, because those are the people you actually meet working in the hotels and on the boats. Palauns aren’t famous for their work ethic.

I was in Palau for the same reason everyone goes to Palau, the scuba diving. Palau has wonderful diving. Part of that is because it’s very lightly dived, both because it is so hard to get to, and because it’s dangerous as shit. Palau lies between two huge bodies of water, which means currents. Huge currents. Currents that rip off masks and pull regulators free. Currents that grab divers and send them plunging straight down 100 feet and hold them there. Currents that whisk away entire groups of divers never to be seen again. Palau is to diving as a double black diamond at Squaw Valley is to skiing.

This was my first experience diving from a live-aboard rather than staying in a hotel. The idea is you stay on a large catamaran for a week that moors near the dive sites. The result is you get in many more dives than you would on a shore-based vacation, up to five a day, because you don’t have to spend that extra time in the boat getting out to the sites. Eat. Sleep. Dive. Or if you’re jet lagged like me, Eat, Dive, Eat, Dive, Eat, Dive, Eat, Dive, Eat, Dive, Try-to-sleep-oh-to-hell-with-it-I-think-I’ll-have-another-cookie-and-is-it-time-for-breakfast-yet?

Our cat held 17 divers and a crew of 8. Not surprisingly, the median age was 57 and over 1/3 of the divers were doctors. Not surprising because this is a relatively expensive vacation and scuba is a geeky sport, and seems to attract doctors and engineers. The 18 guests were an odd cross between the cast of Gilligan’s Island and an Agatha Christie novel—two professors, two older women who ordered the staff babout in sharp, peremptory tones that irritated everyone else on the boat (no doubt, these would be the two that were poisoned), a young Romanian couple, a dentist from L.A. who served in the Israeli paratroopers, and a strange older man named Robert who was from Miami, and when asked what he did for a living, always answered, PAUSE, “I worked for the government,” PAUSE. He would never say what he did for the government, which leads me to believe he changed the oil in trucks for the Border Patrol or something. I know a couple of real spooks, and they all have excruciatingly boring and detailed cover stories.

Still the most interesting thing about the 17 divers is that they weren’t very interesting. All of our stories were the same, more or less. Most of us had come from fringe places, like Waycross, Georgia for me, but we’d all been sucked to the center, drawn by economic magnetism and an extremely efficient school system which finds talent and funnels it. Austria, Romania, Israel, Waycross-all the same story. Wherever we started from, we pretty much ended up in big metro areas like New York, Chicago, LA, Palo Alto or Miami.

Now the crew was a different matter—a Dutch woman, a young American man nicknamed Polar Bear with very strange tattooes all over his 6’4” 260 lb body, a highly trained chef with a degree from the Culinary Institute, a background at some of the top hotels in Maui and a personality like a chain saw. Each of them had a story, and every story was different. Which brings me to the point of this somewhat-pointless-blog.

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that there’s a reason people are where they are. Like my friend John who graduated from Harvard Law and now works in marketing for a small tech start up. Or my friend Ken who was trained as a classical musician and is now my plumber and works on the side posing nude for IU art classes.

No one ends up working on a boat in Palau without a story of how they got there. And their stories were far more interesting than ours. It’s a long trip to Palau, whether you’re there for a week or a lifetime.

Categories: Leisure/Travel

5 replies »

  1. Glad to see you were not sucked down hundreds of feet never to return, or are you writing this from Atlantis? thought Palau was East of the Philippines, not underneath them.

  2. I wonder if they can calculate the number of visitors/ flights with the rise in ocean depth? Also, with all the diving, off-gassing, and motor boating, this place is going to be drowned in another thousand years or so. Hope you enjoy the trip!

  3. The most wonderful part of blogging is the feedback. In this case, the point I was trying to make was about the fact that some people actively work their way to the edge of the earth, and they tend to be particularly interesting folk. Obviously that must be self-evident and banal to everyone but me and you guys took away something else entirely. Thanks for the input. Very helpful.

    John–no we only had one dive with dangerous conditions, and the captain aborted that, to the unspoken but HUGE relief of everyone on the boat. So I am fortunate to have no exciting Palau diving stories, thank goodness. I think the thing with all adventure sports–scuba, trekking, skiing, etc, is that there are no interesting stories unless something goes to shit. And when stuff goes to shit, it tends to go to shit very fast and very badly. So you come away with either boring stories or missing body parts. I am happy to have only boring stories from my trip. And of course, to be more correct I should have said SE (and mostly east) of the Philippines.

    Steely Dan–I have written before in this space about the impact each of us has on the environment just by virtue of living the lifestyles we lead in a very advanced and energy-dependent economy. No doubt tourism has a negative environmental impact, although whether it’s a net negative is a little more challenging calculation. That is, is Palua better off providing protected marine parks for scuba divers, who tend to be relatively careful of their impact, or going back to other income sourses like phospate mining and indiscriminate fishing? And does my vacation create a larger carbon load than any other activity? While outboard motors are obnoxious, I seriously doubt they contribute as much to global warming (and the ocean rise) as do the vast server farms that have become a major user of electricity, and which allow you to access the internet. And I doubt a scuba vacation is much different than any other vacation in terms of carbon load. (Brian–do you know the relative scale?) Finally, I enjoyed it very much, thanks for the good wishes.

  4. Just a little cage rattlin”, I also enjoy the scuba and the ocean. The net effect of a trip like yours is obviously positive, even more so with the sharde insight into the paths that converged to make your experience. Cheers!

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